- Start Reading
- Under the Influence
- Take Part
I’m long overdue a report back from Mix: Digital, where I gave my presentation on Bad Influences and managed to get through it just about in time and without too much babbling. It seemed to go well, and questions focused on the writing process and how I went about the project (rather than the kind of things I was dreading, like “What’s the point?” or “Who’d read that?” or “Aren’t you just writing stories on the internet and calling it a Ph.D?”) My nerves were entirely unnecessary: everybody was friendly and massively supportive. The setting of a beautiful Jacobean mansion with extensive grounds and curious peacocks, combined with weather shipped in from the Mediterranean, gave the whole conference a bit of a holiday feel, but I must have put some work in at some point because I have a lot of notes to collate.
The major theme emerging from the keynotes seemed to be how digital storytelling works best when it recognises the strengths of the media it’s using, and plays to those strengths without trying to artificially retain characteristics that suit more traditional media. Some of the best examples of this were a tie-in app for The Thick of It, which works on the premise that you’ve picked up Malcolm Tucker’s lost iphone and are now getting his increasingly urgent messages, and Naomi Alderman’s Zombies, Run! a terrifyingly motivating fitness app, audio story and game in which you are Runner No. 5, evading zombies to collect urgent supplies for Abel Township. I had no idea there were so many narrative apps out there, and with the amount of things a smart phone can do besides showing text and images, this has huge implications for digital storytelling beyond the two predominant routes of “book with some animation and interaction” or “game with some well-written dialogue and commentary”. For instance, Zombies, Run! can use the phone’s GPS or accelerometer to judge speed and distance, and so determine whether or not you escape the zombie you hear moaning in your headphones a short distance behind you, while the Malcolm Tucker app exposits the plot of the missing phone through messages and Tweets that are viewable on the phone itself – a much more immersive scenario than its paper-based equivalent The Missing DoSAC Files, which appears to paradoxically contain printouts of e-mails about the dossier’s absence.
Dave Addey, one of the creators of the Malcolm Tucker app., gave an entertaining demonstration of the many advanced technical features of the print novel, and went on to explain that nothing in a digital narrative should interfere with the seamless reading of text, in order to allow for the kind of immersion we’re used to getting from this very well-designed platform. Shortly after this talk, Andy Campbell’s experiments with fragmented text at Dreaming Methods and Jillian Abbot’s multimedia ibook Air Quality seemed to successfully flout this idea, with features like disappearing text, puzzle-solving navigation and alternating of text and audio. I’m not sure who I agree with most, but one thing I love about teaching Creative Writing is that every time you try to formulate a rule, the first thing writers do is see how well they can break it, and they often succeed in creating something exceptional. When you recognise the purpose of a rule, you can either think of another way to achieve that purpose or reject it in favour of a new style of narrative in which that purpose isn’t relevant. Examples of this came up in David Hucklesby’s talk about digital adaptations of experimental “Book in a Box” novels Composition No. 1 and The Unfortunates. He talked about rejecting the idea of being able to place the pages in order, as these narratives are “concepts to be represented rather than stories to be told” – it reminded me of Tralfamadorian literature in Slaughterhouse 5, and is probably the closest we can come to truly non-linear narrative, though we still impose our own linearity as we read.
Lyle Skains also spoke about adaptation in her presentation on the Fractured Digital Gaze, a complex and in-depth look at the ways in which multiple-media affect narrative perspective, with examples taken from adapting her own writing between digital and print media. After discovering we were staying at the same B&B and having a pub dinner, I got past the more technical aspects of the presentation and we discussed our digital writing projects more generally. Lyle’s Faerwhile project is an extensive, interesting and beautifully-written collection of digital narratives, including a blogfic with an accompanying twitterfic, and I hope to look more closely at her papers and presentations now that I’ve had a chance to revise my narratological terminology and sort my heterodiegetic narration from my second-person non-mimetic. 😉
Lance Dann’s Flickerman and his ideas about collaborative storytelling were also particularly interesting for me. I loved the analogy of writing in which participants collaborate without apparent leadership, like a murmuration of starlings. His examples included some interesting attempts to balance the total freedom of all participants as authors (authience was a word somebody suggested at one point in the conference, but others groaned) along with curator(s) providing the coherent parameters needed to give a story structure. The pyramid of engagement and long tail analysis he used in his presentation are useful tools for thinking about the way this works and how to curate it. A very small proportion of those engaged with a story will be more actively engaged than simply reading, and the only way to democratise the process is to prevent that active minority from dominating.
The collaboration in BI is very limited and I retain full control of the story, but I’d love to curate a Twitterfic with a huge number of writers that would be far more collaborative, yet hopefully still structured enough for an engaging and re-readable narrative to emerge. I was talking about these ideas with Brett Stalbaum, creator of various psychogeography apps and transmedia projects, and he was interested in getting his students to participate in a mass-Twitterfic. I’m excited about getting the idea off the ground, but aware that I have to stay focused on BI for the time being. Perhaps after the story’s done, I’ll use this blog to start airing the idea and gathering participants.
Amy Spencer spoke about The Networked Novel and gave some good examples, some of which I’d seen before (Flight Paths, The Golden Notebook project) and some which were new to me (The Silent History, A Million Penguins, Songs of Imagination and Digitisation). I thought about a couple of papers I’d read on similar topics: The Shifting Author-Reader Dynamic (coincidentally by Lyle Skains, which I didn’t realise until after the conference!) and Jill Walker‘s ideas on Distributed Narrative.
These are all very applicable to Bad Influences and are going on the list to think about in more detail when posting’s complete and I start on the write-up. My thoughts at the moment are that real-time serialisation is a very particular form of “distribution in time” that makes strong connections between the distributed authorship and the writer-reader dynamic. It makes a back and forth conversation possible that doesn’t exist in a non-serialised text, and which is far more dynamic than that of more conventionally serialised work, such as the letters pages in monthly comics. Part of this difference may come from how these interactions affect the characters and the writer in the moment of the story. For instance, despite having a schedule for BI’s posts pre-planned, I spent the last few days before Mei’s most recent post thinking about whether it’s time for her to blog again yet, or whether she’s too busy and exhausted and disheartened from the battle and the clean-up effort, whether she even wants to get back to explaining to her readers how badly things have gone wrong at this time. I find myself thinking about how the characters feel right now, both when they post and between posts. Mei’s felt like giving up at various points between her last two posts, but getting comments from Fiona and the other characters on her blog have made her feel like the world is watching and she has a duty to carry on. Comments on the Facebook have had a similarly motivating effect on me – when Shirly Shirl commented that she hoped all the others didn’t have endings this sad, I thought: Are people thinking this is how it ends? This isn’t the end! Maybe I should bring some other events forward before people think it’s petering out? But should I be telling readers it’s not the end? Is that spoilering? These are questions that wouldn’t arise in a traditional novel, and wouldn’t have the same relevance even in a serialised online novel if it had no epistolary or real-time element. The conventions for ending a story would be clearly visible, and the character’s actions – no matter how long they took her to get around to in narrative time – would be narrated within an unchanging time-frame. Again, I come back to the rules and conventions for multiple-character blogfic being unrecognised by both the readers and by me, because they’re not yet determined.
My Ph.D., as well as being an excuse to write stories on the internet, is in part about trying to observe and formulate those rules. Going back to the major themes of the Mix: Digital conference, that’s absolutely not because I expect writers to follow them in future. In fact, it’s especially important for writers in new and emerging media to try to work out what the rules are, precisely because that gives writers the opportunity to try breaking them, which is how we’ll discover just what these freshly-forged narrative tools can really do.
 I’m now eagerly awaiting the Doctor Who app in which Harriet Jones MP Flydale North gets called an omnishambles and monsters are yelled into submission with distinctly post-watershed threats and insults.